Boston Home Spring 2010: Blueprint: Think: Designers Within Reach: Brigid Sweeney

Beate Becker, director of the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts, explains why creative genius is a precious local resource.

FOUR YEARS AGO, Governor Deval Patrick made a campaign promise to grow Massachusetts’ creative economy. His logic was simple: good design catalyzes economic growth in every field. That’s because ideas succeed only when they’re wrapped in an attractive, easy-to-use package. There are plenty of local success stories that prove this point. The most well known, perhaps, comes from Bedford-based iRobot, the brainchild of MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks. For decades companies had tried, and failed to incorporate robotic technology into domestic life. But in 2002, thanks to its sleek and accessible design, the Roomba vacuum finally succeeded in catapulting robots—and the iRobot name—into households everywhere.

Other firms have tackled slightly less futuristic, yet no less revolutionary, projects. Procter & Gamble, for example, asked Newton company Design Continuum to come up with a totally new kind of cleaning tool in the late ’90s. Continuum product engineers promptly solved the basic problem of floor mops—the fact that they push around dirty water—by creating a device that absorbs the dirt as soon as it hits the ground. The result? The Swiffer,one of P & G’s most profitable products ever. Designers at the Boston outpost of Herbst LaZar Bell, meanwhile, observed knee-replacement surgeries in order to design sleek new orthopedic tools that provide maximum grip—and reduce hand fatigue—for surgeons, a critical issue during eight-hour operations.

But though Boston’s design prowess is already intellectually and economically potent, it remains under the radar. Our impressive numbers may surprise people who think the city is strictly a science and technology powerhouse; in fact, more than 45,000 people work in design-related jobs in Massachusetts, from architecture and advertising to product design for New Balance and Reebok. Boston-area companies actually support the second-largest industrial-design population in the country, behind San Francisco.

The parallels between Boston and San Francisco are obvious: Both are hubs of design, engineering, and business schools. Both attract professionals who turn research into marketable products, and therefore need visionaries who can create a product from the ground up. In turn, both are home to a multitude of designers who work hand in hand with thriving, technologically driven companies to bring paradigm-shifting innovations to market—and money to the state.

The only difference is that San Francisco has a markedly higher coolness quotient. In spite of our numbers, people continue to view Boston—and Massachusetts as a whole—as architecturally conservative and sartorially stodgy.

This image problem is not just an aesthetic concern. It’s directly related to our ability to lure new creative types, continue cultivating our creative economy, and ultimately make Massachusetts a more vibrant place to live and work. That’s because designers do more than create products that make our economy hum: They also improve our quality of life.

Consider lighting designer Lana Nathe, whose October 2008 IlluminaleBoston project transformed monuments like the old Northern Avenue Bridge and the Custom House into sparkling beacons. Designers also bring governmental and institutional ideas to fruition in ways that can dramatically improve our public spaces. Artists’ beautiful renderings, for example, gave momentum to initiatives like the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the ICA building. And creative types are usually the first to invest in emerging neighborhoods like Fort Point and Union Square.

The good news is that once we identify design as an industry worth paying attention to, there are plenty of things we can do to attract new talent. As the director of the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts (DIGMA), I’ve spent the past 18 months reaching out to local design leaders to discuss how best to rebrand Massachusetts, and Boston in particular, as a hub of good, forward-thinking design. Through conferences and trade missions, I’ve also been able to learn from counter-parts in Switzerland, Austria, and Scotland, where design thrives and receives enviable government support.

One straightforward goal is to better market our talent locally, nationally, and internationally. Logan Airport’s international terminal recently featured an eye-catching exhibit about Swiss scientists’ achievements in fields ranging from geology to the human genome. We should do something similar in Europe and Asia on behalf of our designers.

On a more ambitious level, we need to get more design professionals into state and municipal agencies. Can you imagine if brilliant young architects routinely designed affordable housing and local parks? Our state would be more beautiful, more efficient—and the proud home of even more young designers who came here to make a real difference.

Boston’s next economic engine isn’t percolating in a test tube at MIT. It’s sitting in classrooms and studios across the city, the state, and the world. By starting the right conversations now, we’ll ensure that these creative minds flock here—and stay put—for decades to come.